25 March 2012

Seeking After Jesus

Jeremiah 31: 31-34 & John 12: 20-33

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 25th March 2012

 “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  As I step into the pulpit here to preach each week I see these words.  Not in my imagination. I see them literally – they’re etched right on the edge of the pulpit.  “Sir, we would see Jesus.”  It’s the King James rendering of John 20:21; the New Revised Standard Version says, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Would or wish, both words give expression to their desire – the yearning, the request of these “Greeks” to meet Jesus. 

We don’t know much about these “Greeks,” but we know something.  They’re in Jerusalem.  They’re part of a group of people “who went up,” John says, “to worship.”  By “up” John is referring to the Temple Mount, the temple to Yahweh.  They were there to worship for a “festival,” referring to Passover. These are people who worshipped Yahweh.  But were they Jews?  Possibly. They might have been Hellenistic Jews, Jews from the diaspora living in the Greek-speaking world (perhaps from modern Greece or Turkey).  Perhaps they were pilgrims, making an once-in-a-lifetime journey to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem.  Or, they could have been what we might call today religious seekers, Gentiles who worshipped Yahweh but who never became, technically, Jews.  They would have been allowed to worship God in the Court of the Gentiles, one of the outer courtyards of the Temple, but not allowed to get much closer than that.  Either way – they’re religious seekers, there to worship.

            That’s about all we know. We don’t know how they came to know about Jesus. We don’t know why they’re seeking after him, what draws them toward him.  What about Jesus do they find attractive, what draws them to his message and, more than the message, what draws them to him?  What we can say is that it’s the occasion of worship, informed by a holy curiosity that draws them to him.  Their journey toward Jesus traverses through the way of worship, of adoration and praise.  It’s on the way toward the worship of God that they seek out Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  Philip went and told Andrew and then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  Jesus answered “them,” the text says – Philip and Andrew – he never does speak to the Greeks. 

            And the answer, you have to admit, is a bit odd, starting at verse 23.  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it died, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  Talk about non-sequiturs! It’s a baffling metaphor upon first hearing. Learning that “some Greeks” seek to see him, Jesus launches into this mini-sermon.

            From our vantage we know that Jesus is talking with Philip and Andrew about his impending death and the meaning of the death. Because the implied reference is to the cross a lot of ink has been spent and spilled over the centuries trying to make sense of these verses – and, for the most part ignoring the setting for Jesus’ statement, the inquiry of Greeks on their way to worship Yahweh.  Commentators tend to reflect on verse 23 and following.

            The Church has come up with all kind of theories regarding the meaning of the crucifixion, what theologians call theories of atonement.  The most pervasive theory in Western theology, running from Ambrose of Milan (c. between 337 and 340-397) to Anselm of Canterbury (c.1003-1109) right up to Mel of Hollywood, (although I really shouldn’t place Mel Gibson in the company of Ambrose and Milan), is that “God demands death in order for life to emerge, that only a violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honor has been affronted and whose anger has been aroused.”  This is the prevailing view in the Church; many are not aware that there are other views.  So many Christians over the years – including today – and many non-Christians believe that “God is basically an angry Father who demands sacrifice in order to balance the injustice of the universe caused by human sin.”  Contemporary theologian Michael Welker says this view is “nothing less than destructive of faith.” It has, propagated a latent image of God that is deeply unchristian, indeed demonic:  This God is always seeking compensation.”[1]  I would agree with him. This view is so ingrained into the Christian experience that when we hear a text like this, of falling and dying, of a death required, we hear it with sacrifice in mind. 

            As it stands, this verse is problematic.  It’s problematic because it’s so easy to think that a follower of Jesus must despise this world and that we are to hate our lives within it.  Many Christians are running around with this view.  This was the view I had as a young adult.  I’m not sure where I got it from – my parents didn’t hold this view, my church didn’t, I can’t remember my church school teachers saying this.  I read a lot of religious literature when I was in high school, which, upon looking back now, I now know, was really more fundamentalist in nature.  This did a lot of damage to my psyche. 

            Jesus seems to be saying that life has no inherent value unless it dies.  He seems to be warning against loving life.  This has led some Christians to assume that loving the world too much, having fun, taking pleasure in the world and enjoying the beauty of people and creation is a sin, a threat, a temptation that needs to be confessed and repented from. 

            Jesus’ statements here also appear to be otherworldly.  This, too, has led some Christians to believe that this world means nothing, only the after-life matters.  These are generally the same folks who argue that we don’t have to be stewards of creation, don’t have to be concerned about climate change, or social injustice, or even the threat of nuclear annihilation because this world doesn’t matter. 

            Some Christians believe that Jesus’ ministry and message have little to do with this world, it’s really more about our eternal destiny, where we go when we die.  This view runs deep in our theological DNA; that Jesus had to die on the cross in order for us to go to heaven.  John Chrysostom (c.347-407) wrote, “Since, if anyone look to heaven and see the beauteous things there, he will soon despise this life, and make no account of it.”[2]  For him, God’s Kingdom is the afterlife.  To focus on this life is, as he put it, “a kind of chain.”  One of my professors at Princeton, Diogenes Allen, reminded us that the Christian life is about more than geography – worrying about whether one goes “up” or “down” after one dies.  It’s easy to believe that this is what Jesus was concerned about because he refers to “eternal life,” which we assume (incorrectly) here that Jesus is referring to the afterlife – which is most clearly not the case.

            And there are other questions.  What does it really mean to hate one’s life?  What does it means to die to self?  How does one lose one’s soul?  This is a tough one.  Here, too, a misreading of this text has done considerable damage.  If one’s soul or self (the Greek here is psyche) are lost, then what is left?  Does Christ become everything and we becoming nothing?  Is this what it means to be a Christian, losing our individuality, our uniqueness?  I’ve met a lot of Christians who said they are trying to become nothing so that Christ can become everything in them.  It’s as if they’re describing a kind of spirit-possession.  This isn’t healthy.  Imagine how an interpretation like this sounds to someone who’s been emotionally or physically abused, who has a poor sense of self, who was taught that they don’t matter, the trauma of their experience belittled, their trust betrayed, their soul broken and diminished; and what about women and men who have had to struggle throughout their lives to find their souls, to regain and reclaim their souls, who have learned to care for their souls, to love themselves, honor themselves, respect themselves?  Hearing Jesus say they must “hate their life” is not good news!  In fact it’s really bad news, terrible news.

            Surely Jesus knows all of this.  I can’t imagine that Jesus, teaching in love, would have meant us to read or hear the text this way!  There has to be a still more excellent way.

            Psychologist Mary Tennes suggests that it’s important for us to differentiate between submission and surrender.  “Submission means giving over what is true and authentic about ourselves, giving it up because another demands it – even though it may crush your spirit.  When we submit, we do so out of fear that the person who demands our submission will hurt us or abandon us if we refuse.  Submission always means diminishment of the self.  It’s the opposite of abundant life.”[3]  It’s worth highlighting this reference to abundant life here because abundant life is actually a better way of translating “eternal life” – or life touched by eternity.  It means overflowing life, “life that spills over the edges like a sloshing water bucket.”[4]  It’s eternal in the sense that it has no limit, it’s unending, and therefore God’s life is abundant, vital, creative, full to over-flowing.

            “Surrender, on the other hand, is not giving ourselves over to another out of fear, but rather, giving ourselves over to a larger vision of what we are most deeply meant to be and do in God’s world.  Much of what we cling to and strive for in our daily lives comes from a restricted range of possibility.”  Submission is motivated by fear, but surrender is motived by hope, she suggests.[5]  Tennes is very helpful here.  Surrender calls us to risk, to give up the familiar, to strike out for unknown territory.  Isn’t this what Jesus did on the cross? 

            What Jesus is getting at here in this text is really about surrender, not submission.  The ability to surrender is motivated by hope; we might also call it faith.  I would modify this slightly and suggest that there’s something deeper that motivates surrender within us.  Surrender is motivated by love.

            This is why I think it’s critical for us to hear these verses about dying and rising within the larger setting of the text that begins with “some Greeks” making their way into worship with a desire, a passion, a love for God.  It is the context of love that these Greeks desire to see Jesus.  If my reading of this is correct, we then discover that there is a kind of knowledge of God, a type of insight, awareness, perception of God that can only be found by following after the desires of our hearts and adoration – doxology.  I’m talking about a knowledge of God that can’t be achieved or accessed by our intellect or by living a good life. What if there are things about God that we discover only in and through worship rooted and grounded in love and not apart form it?[6] 

            I believe that it’s the context of love – drawn by the love of God, called by the love of God, claimed and affirmed to the core of our being by the power of God’s love – that allows us to see Jesus, to see the God who shines through face of Jesus.  And within love we can hear in this text something profound.  A deep and mysterious wisdom is found here, friends, a wisdom takes us a very long time to fathom:  in order for a life to truly glorify God, to fulfill its purpose, something within us has to dieSomething has to die.  We don’t want to hear this.   But the part of us that doesn’t want to hear this is not the true self, but the ego or the false self.

            It seems to me that this is what Jesus is talking about here.  It’s our human egocentricity that needs to die, to be knocked off dead-center (and I mean this literally), so that Christ can become the center.  It’s the false self (which is often fear-based) that needs to die so that the true self, feeling loved, grounded in its identity in Christ, may emerge.  And this can’t occur without some kind of assault on our sensibilities and reason  (like the crucifixion itself), without something that destabilizes the ego, a force that throws us into conflict, what I would call a kind of gracious violence – with an emphasis on gracious.[7]  Either way, Jesus’ call to die can only be “heard” or received or accepted by the ego or the false self within the wider framework of God’s love – when fear is replaced with love – when we come to acknowledge that God does not ultimately seek to destroy life, but to give life, abundantly – Jesus said, I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10).  We come to know this truth and welcome it – dying and rising and bearing fruit – within a trusting relationship, within the context of worship of a God who came “not to condemn the world, but that the world might be save” (John 3: 17).

            The ego or false self within us – often full of fear – hears these words of Jesus as submission.  The true self, on the other hand, – grounded in love – hears Jesus’ words as surrender, a joyous surrender, as an opportunity to embrace one’s destiny and purpose.

            Last year I came across these words of the poet Kathleen Raine (1909-2003), so simple, yet so profound:  “Unless you see a thing in the light of love, you do not see at thing at all.”[8]  It’s worth praying and meditating on this for a long time.  Implicit here, of course, is the opposite; without the light of love, we don’t see a thing, including Jesus.

             In order to see Jesus – and to see who he really is – requires a change within us. Something has to die within us; something has to shift; something has to give way.  The change, the shift doesn’t occur through fear, only love. There’s not much gained in this world through living a life of fear.  Fear doesn’t motivate this change, love does. It’s finally love that motivates us to surrender.  We are not asked to submit, but we are called to surrender – and we can –
            because the one who calls us is love,
                        and the one to whom we yield is love,
                        and the one into whom we fall
                                                             and fall
                                                             and fall
                                                             and discover abundant life is love. 

Image: K E. Kovacs, Path to the East Lomond, Kingdom of Fife, Scotland (May, 2009).
[1] I’m grateful for Thomas G. Long’s succinct summary of substitutionary atonement theory and for the Welker quotation, “What God Wants,” Christian Century (March 21, 2006), 19. 
[2] John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, LXVVI, http://www.ccel.org/ccelschaff/npnf114.iv.lxix.html.
[3]Pamela Cooper-White’s summary of Mary Tennes’ article, “Beyond Submission and Toward Surrender:  The Evolving Female Self,” unpublished paper, cited in Cooper-White, The Cry of Tama: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 93.
[4] Mary H. Schertz, Exegesis notes for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Lectionary Homiletics, XXIII (No. 2, February/ March 2012), 57.
[5]Cooper-White on Tennes, Pastoral implications for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Lectionary, Homiletics, XXIII (No. 2, February/ March 2012), 59.
[6] Kenneth E. Kovacs, Theological themes for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Lectionary Homiletics, XXIII (No. 2, February/ March 2012), 58.
[7] Kovacs, 58. This notion of “gracious violence” is heavily informed by the novelist Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), especially her short story “Revelation;” as well as the convictional theology of James E. Loder (1931-2001) and C. G. Jung’s (1875-1961) understanding of ego-transformation.  There is no transformation without conflict.
[8] I’m grateful to Melanie Starr Costello for introducing me to Raine’s poetry.  This quote is cited in John O’Donohue’s (1956-2008), Anam CaraDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=hermeneia-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=006092943X: A Book of Celtic WisdomDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=hermeneia-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=006092943XDescription: http://www.assoc-amazon.com/e/ir?t=hermeneia-20&l=btl&camp=213689&creative=392969&o=1&a=006092943X (HarperCollins, 1989), 65.